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Up, Up and Away!

Cheryl Hendricks remembers vividly the day her daughter took her first steps. "We were sitting on the living room floor, and suddenly she just stood up and went," says Hendricks, of Indianapolis. Libby was not quite 11 months old. "My husband and I both cheered her on as she crossed the room," recalls Hendricks. "Then he said, 'Well, there goes our freedom.'" Indeed, within a week, Libby was fearlessly attempting to charge up a small staircase.

My own son, by contrast, made his first tentative attempt at 14 1/2 months. Liam pulled himself up to a stand, turned, and took one or two steps before hurtling himself into my arms. For the next two months, cruising was an occasional curiosity; he was more content to sit on the floor and look at books. He didn't become a true toddler until he was 17 months old.

Which scenario is normal? Both of them. Walking is a motor skill with more variations than any other, and babies will master it exactly when they're supposed to  -- whether it's at 9 months or 18 months. "When parents ask me what's 'normal,' I tell them that when it comes to walking, I don't even like to use the word," says David Geller, M.D., a pediatrician with Childrens Hospital, in Boston. "But I had to see hundreds of children before I understood how vast the range was."

Scientists now know that humans are genetically wired for walking. But a newborn's head is enormous in relation to the rest of his body, his center of gravity is near the chest, and his nervous system develops from the head down. So it takes about 12 months for a baby's proportions to readjust and for him to get his movements coordinated enough even to try, says Michael Wade, Ph.D., a kinesiologist at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus.

While there's no definite profile of early walkers, lean babies tend to be mobile sooner than chubby ones, and those with large heads (in relation to their height and weight) usually take their first steps later. "It's physics," says Wade. But it's not just body size and muscle tone: Temperament can also determine when a baby will take his first stroll. Since laid-back kids tend to approach most developmental milestones more cautiously than their more active, restless peers, in general, infants with an easier disposition often walk later.

As long as your child has reached the skills that lay the foundation for walking, such as pulling up and standing, experts say, there's no need for concern if your child's content to crawl while most of his friends are toddling. And it's fine if your child doesn't conquer every gross motor skill in the exact order baby books suggest. "Some kids skip rolling, or scoot instead of crawl, or go from crawling straight to walking," says Dr. Geller.

THE BRAIN'S ROLEUntil the 1950s, scientists believed that a baby's cognitive development played a big part when it came to mastering motor skills. "The general thinking was that the brain commanded the child to sit, stand, crawl, walk, and so on," says Wade. "It was a very sexy explanation, but it was wrong." Still, the myth persists that early walkers are brainier.

It's not intelligence that ultimately drives a baby to get up and go, but it is something more than strength and coordination. Experts simply attribute it to evolution, although no one knows which happens first  -- that a baby wants to walk, or that she discovers she can and is compelled to keep doing it. "It's as if you could go from just watching television to suddenly being able to step into the set and interact with the characters," says Dr. Geller. "Walking opens up a new world, and it's impossible for a baby to resist."

As your baby gains the ability to investigate more things on her own, mobility actually triggers a burst of cognitive development. It's no accident that social skills and her ever-growing realization that she's independent are developing about the same time. But be warned: This can also be a frustrating phase for parents. "Once children start walking, they realize their environment doesn't control them any more," says Dr. Geller. So your usually enthusiastic eater may suddenly refuse even her favorite foods because she resents being restrained in the high chair. Or your 11-hours-at-a-stretch snoozer may wake screaming once or twice a night. What's a parent to do?

For your newly picky eater, try putting her in a booster seat  -- it allows for more movement and more interaction  -- rather than the high chair. You can also sit at the table while she dines, even if you're not eating yourself. Or simply begin to set limits: Take your child out of the high chair and explain that if she doesn't want to sit there, she must not be hungry. She'll learn soon that she won't eat if she continues her disruptive behavior, says Ellie Hamburger, M.D., director of pediatrics at George Washington University Medical Center.

And instead of worrying that your baby is slipping into bad nighttime habits, try comforting and resettling her as quickly and calmly as possible. Most of the time little ones are frustrated because they want to try out their new skills and can't. Their only recourse: To summon you.

The most important thing to remember is that such erratic behavior is completely normal  -- and temporary. After Cole Watts, of Moss Beach, California, had attempted his first steps at about 9 months, the once-cheerful baby became a grump. "I wanted to help him figure out how to do it without falling," says his mom, Tena. "But when I interfered, it seemed to make him even more unhappy."

So Tena Watts simply moved the coffee table from the family room, made sure the backyard was safe for Cole to roam wherever he wanted, and let him do it his way. After a month, he was confidently rambling around and back to his contented self.

STEPPING OUT SAFELYExperts say that letting your child experiment on his own is exactly what he needs. "When a child learns to walk, he really gets to know his body," says kinesiologist Wade. "The best thing a parent can do is provide a safe environment where he can master the skill and explore." Experts advise toddler-proofing at least one room in your home: Remove lamps and low furniture with sharp edges (or at least pad the edges), and secure heavy bookshelves or entertainment centers to walls. While pressure-mounted gates are okay to cordon off rooms that aren't childproof, make sure that what you use to block stairways are the sturdier, hardware-mounted models.

At this point in your baby's development, you've probably already shortened the cords to curtains and blinds (to prevent strangulation), and installed cabinet latches. But double-check your previous babyproofing to make sure that your child remains safe now that he can reach new heights. Outside, make sure you've locked away all garden tools and pesticides, and removed any drowning hazards (including buckets and ice coolers with standing water) that can get within a toddler's reach.

FUNNY WALKSNow that your baby is actually motoring around, you may notice that she looks a little strange doing it  -- in fact, you can usually pick out a newly minted walker by her stiff, wide-legged gait. She also may fall every couple of steps or so. But the way she's built probably contributes to her clumsiness: Most toddlers' legs are slightly bowed, their feet appear flat, and their toes either turn out or, more commonly, in. All of this is both typical and temporary. The toes often straighten out at around 18 months, and bowed legs follow suit usually by about 3 years. And those flat-looking feet are just plump; when your toddler starts to shed her baby fat, her arches will begin to make their appearance.

In the meantime, remember that a few bumps and bruises are part of the process. "Learning to walk is like finding your way around a new city," says Dr. Geller. "You have to get lost a couple of times before you know the lay of the land." And once your little one gets the hang of it, your world  -- and hers  -- will never be the same.